By PAUL LIKOUDIS
Catholics today who are confused or dismayed by the so-called “radicalism” of Pope Francis — especially in view of his critique of “trickle-down” economics and the “tyranny” of modern finance —should understand that he is in line with a tradition that goes back to Pope Leo XIII, who in the foundational encyclical on Catholic social doctrine, Rerum Novarum (1891), deplored the fact that:
“[W]orking men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless under different guise, but with the like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
It was Pope Leo’s encyclical that inspired the newly ordained Dominican priest, Fr. Vincent McNabb, to devote his life to the service of London’s poor, evangelizing, catechizing, and giving aid and comfort, while also teaching Dominican novices and carrying on a large public ministry, especially by speaking at large public events, notably the speaker’s forum in Hyde Park.
The life of Fr. McNabb (1868-1943) was the subject of a recent talk by Michael Hennessy to the Belloc Society in London on November 12.
Hennessy, a career, non-political employee of Parliament, described McNabb as the “Apostle of First Principles,” who “was always at pains to say that he only spoke as the Church spoke…to drive all of us, both within and without, back to first principles, to understand not just from custom or habit or from obedience or from fashion or fear of offense or human respect what is the Truth — and, from an understanding of that Truth, for us to draw closer to Christ, to Almighty God and thus to Blessedness.
“His was not an easy task — it was ascetic, hard, driven, [likely] to create as many enemies as friends, to drive some to mock him, to hate him. But this is perhaps the role of the alter Christus throughout the ages,” Hennessy observed.
Pope Leo’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, said Hennessy, was “the foundational text” of his life, and McNabb urged his novices to always keep a copy of it by their bedside, and to carry it with them while they were out and about. But Scripture and St. Thomas’ Summa, which McNabb translated into English while on his knees, were also foundational, and the basis for his critiques of society, the state, and modern economics.
Hennessy explained: “An example of how reflection upon a short passage of Scripture influenced his teaching about society and economics can be found in his book, Nazareth or Social Chaos. As with many of his essays, Fr. McNabb’s mind was set a-whirring by a text — in this case a line from St. John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. St. John records how those who were hungry took ‘as much as they would.’
“Fr. McNabb comments: ‘If the Eternal Wisdom, instead of miraculously providing bread and fishes, had provided money, St. John would have been unable to say that as much as each one wanted Jesus gave.’
“As ever there is much to unpack from this text and from Fr. McNabb’s comment.